How to hire tech talent as a non-technical founder
By Anthony Sochan
Most founders will attest to the fact that hiring tech talent is challenging, and as a non-technical founder this is an even tougher task. However, it’s definitely not an insurmountable challenge: some of the world’s most successful startups have non-technical founders, from Amazon to Airbnb, Alibaba. and Groupon.
Admittedly, without technical skills yourself it can be difficult to define what you’re looking for or how to identify it. Here are some tips for hiring:
- Seek help
Ideally, a strong CTO will guide you through the process and help identify the right technical hires. But if you don’t have tech skills or a CTO, it’s advisable to bring on board an external technical advisor. This may be someone who is a CTO or engineering manager within another business. If you ask around you should be able to find someone.
Investing in this kind of advice is critical. Hiring the wrong candidate can be costly: Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh once estimated that bad hires had cost the company over USD$100 million. Someone with the right background and experience will be able to help assess whether candidates are what they claim, or if they’re misrepresenting their skills and abilities. Unfortunately you can’t just get an engineer, plonk them in, and assume they will be great in your organisation.
- Plan carefully
You need to put a lot more thought in and invest time in a planning process before you hire. Some key questions to ask yourself; What do we need? And why do we need them? What does success look like for this individual? What skills and attributes do you need from this person? Through this reflection process you should be able to come up with a basic profile of what you are looking for.
As a startup it can be tempting to try and ask for everything, but unfortunately that will not reflect the skills available in the market. Instead, reduce it down to what’s important and necessary, versus what’s nice to have. Also, ask yourself, Is it wise to rely upon one person to do everything?
We recently hired for a senior position at an Australian technology company. We spent five hours with all the different stakeholders in the business, understanding what their needs were. Then we came back together as a group, and held a session where we prioritised all the different needs. Some skills on the initial wishlist, such as planning and external communication, were “nice but not core”. Eventually we boiled it down to three core skills that we were looking for, including technical excellence, experience with scaling a business, and people leadership.
- Three-level interview process
As a founder there will be three sets of interviews that you carry out: technical interviewing, behavioural interviewing, and social interviewing.
For the behavioural assessment, you need to spend a focused amount of time with a prospective candidate, and dig into their background to understand what they’ve done with their career and why they have done certain things. It is about understanding someone’s core motivations; for example, you might ask: “Can you talk me through a difficult decision you have had to make in your career?” You would then ask additional questions that probe their answer, such as “What could you have done differently?” or “What did you learn from this experience?”
Social interviewing is about getting to know the person as a human and, most importantly, building a two-way level of trust. This type of interviewing should involve grabbing a drink, coffee, or dinner – it must be relaxed and allow you to get to know each other at a more human level.
For Technical Interviews we like to see how people go by simulating a real world business challenge. Usually this would replicate what they might be doing in the job. We strongly recommend working with a technical advisor and getting assistance in creating the challenge as well as assessing the quality of the persons answers.
- Look for talent offshore
Hiring offshore is one option, and there are fantastic engineers all over the world. Over the years I have brought in engineers from India, China, and Eastern Europe and the quality has been amazing. It’s certainly possible to attract top US talent to Australia.
We recently brought back a head of engineering who had spent a decade in Silicon Valley working for Google, Apple, Twitter, and Lyft. Top US technical talent will have had experience at scale, building things to a level which very few people would have been exposed to here in Australia. But you need to be prepared to go through a much longer and really well thought out interview process, as well as pay for relocation.
Offering a large salary package is of course a more difficult issue for startups and SMEs, due to smaller budgets. But you can compete in other ways.
First, you can give out stock. It’s really important for startups to do this. Any startup that’s not doing so needs to take a good, hard look at themselves.
Secondly, you can compete on the work they will be doing and the culture around them. In a big company you are a cog within a machine, working on a small part of a very large system. In a startup you work across everything in a holistic way. This earns a breadth of skills and knowledge that make it easier for someone to oversee entire projects, or identify what they want to specialise in, since they have this broader experience.
If you are a startup, you live or die by the quality of the technology you have in your business. You can’t afford to make mistakes with hiring tech talent.
Anthony Sochan, cofounder of Think & Grow, helps Australian and international business with growth and transformation. His passion is growing early stage technology ventures, and since 2007 he has completed over 200 projects ranging from the organisational design of software engineering functions through to the placement of CTOs for some of the world’s most influential businesses.